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A history of diabetes breakthroughs

Richard C. Lillehei, M.D., and William D. Kelly, M.D.

Minnesota faculty have been leading the way for 40 years

In February, news media across the country heralded the news that University of Minnesota researchers have successfully reversed type 1 diabetes in monkeys. What the media didn’t report is that University researchers have been achieving milestone after milestone in better diabetes treatments for decades.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the world’s first successful pancreas transplant. That triumph also marked the start of the University’s pancreas transplant program, which is now the oldest and largest in the world. Since then, University surgeons have performed more than 1,500 pancreas transplants and that number continues to grow at a rate of 150 each year. 

Today the University of Minnesota is recognized as a worldwide leader in diabetes research. Here are just a few of the trailblazing achievements realized at the University:

John S. Najarian, M.D.

1966    Surgeons Richard C. Lillehei, M.D., and William D. Kelly, M.D., performed the world’s first clinical pancreas transplant on a 28-year-old woman who was diagnosed with diabetes at age 9. The woman also received a kidney, making this the world’s first simultaneous pancreas-kidney transplant as well.

1974   Surgeons David E. R. Sutherland, M.D., Ph.D., and John S. Najarian, M.D., performed the world’s first transplant of insulin-producing islet cells (from a deceased donor to a living person) to treat diabetes.

1977    Sutherland and Najarian performed the world’s first living donor islet cell transplant.A diabetic man received the islet allograft from his sister.

1979    Sutherland and Najarian performed the world’s first transplant of a partial pancreas from a living related donor.

1992    Sutherland and Paul F. Gores, M.D., conducted one of the world’s first clinical islet transplant trials — uniquely using single donors of simultaneous kidney transplants, which accelerated interest in this approach. Two of six patients became insulin-independent with a single donor islet allograft.

David E.R. Sutherland, M.D., Ph.D.

1992   Sutherland performed the world’s first unrelated living donor pancreas transplant at the University of Minnesota.

1994   The University of Minnesota Medical School established the Diabetes Institute for Immunology and Transplantation in the Department of Surgery, naming Sutherland as its director.

1994   Sutherland and Rainer Gruessner, M.D., performed the world’s first combined pancreas and kidney transplant from a living donor.

2000   Gruessner and Sutherland joined Raja Kandaswamy, M.D., to perform the world’s first simultaneous laparoscopic living donor pancreas-kidney transplant.

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